So, why do we ride trains?

Because we had dinner the other night.

Indulge me for a moment and I’ll explain. I’m honestly not sure what originally got me into trains. And by “into trains” I mean I enjoy them as a mode of travel–I am not a train nut like some people we’ve met. I can’t quote you train schedules. I can’t tell you when and where a particular train car was built. And I can’t tell you when Amtrak was formed or what rail companies it was made up from. But I do know that ever since I was a kid my parents would tell me that cross-country trains were on the way out, and that you never know when your last chance to ride one will be. At least, in my mind my parents said that many times, but in reality they probably only said it once–and I guess that once was enough, since it stuck in my mind. Perhaps I keep riding trains thinking (knowing?) that at some point they will be no more, and at least I won’t have missed out completely. Or maybe it comes from having spent my summers in a duplex only one block off the tracks in Del Mar, where my brothers and I smashed pennies on the tracks and later, in high school, regularly rode the San Diegan from LA to Del Mar to spend weekends with our folks (who had gone down on Thursday to both beat the Friday traffic and to extend their weekend). Or maybe it all stems from my college days when I was going to school in Flagstaff, a simple overnight train ride from LA on the Southwest Chief. Whatever the reason, the idea of long distance train travel took root and became a part of who I am. But other than an occasional trip to Flagstaff–where I rode in coach–and one trip with the Wilson clan to Albuquerque, until my sabbatical almost ten years ago I really hadn’t ridden too many overnight trains.

Because of this, my original plan years ago to drive around the country for my sabbatical morphed into a lengthy train journey, one I’ve chronicled elsewhere. That experience convinced me that I wasn’t entirely crazy, and that there was indeed something to this train travel stuff. Once I learned to deal with the inconsistent on-time performance, I came to realize that what is really special about train travel, and what makes it worth doing over most other modes of travel, is the people you meet.

Amtrak makes periodic announcements about the on-board dining system. They point out that the dining car operates on the principle of community seating: if you have fewer than four people in your party, you will be seated with someone else. And these days they add that electronics such as iPhones and iPads are not permitted in the dining car. No electronic cocoons for the seriously introverted among us! So unless you have a physical infirmity that requires you to dine in your room (or unless you are just so antisocial that you insist on the same treatment), you’re going to meet someone new at every meal. Just as we did last Saturday night at dinner.

In fact, we had three onboard meals that day. At breakfast, we sat with Scott, a young man currently living in California who was off to see his family in El Paso. While not the most sparkling conversationalist, we did learn that he grew up in Sugar Land, Texas–a place that Nancy never knew really existed. With Scott we mostly chatted about train travel and admired the landscape passing by outside our window.

At lunch, things got more interesting. We sat with David and Kari, a married couple about our age from Salem, Oregon. David runs a print shop in Salem, but what occupied most of our conversation was their distaste for the automobile. David is on the Salem Planning Commission and is doing whatever he can to turn Salem into a more bike-friendly city. He says that, as you might expect, he is a bit of a dissenting voice on a board largely made up of developers and folks who are more interested in old-school car-focused development.

And then came dinner. The dining car steward directed us to a table where an older black couple was already sitting. We introduced ourselves and chatted amiably, mostly with Mary; her husband of forty years, Roosevelt, seemed the quiet type. However, as we ordered and received our meals, we carried on the usual conversations one has in the dining car: “Where are you going?”/”Where have you been?” (they were heading home to Chicago after spending a month taking care of their daughter in Buckeye, Arizona; she had developed an infection during a surgical procedure that was proving very hard to fight off). “Have you ridden Amtrak before?” (no, they hadn’t, although Roosevelt had always wanted to). By this point in our conversation, Roosevelt had opened up and was fully engaged in our conversation. We were talking about the movement of the train and he mentioned that it was “nothing compared to the movement of the ships he was on in the Korean War.” That was our first clue that he was older than either of us had realized; when Nancy later asked how long they had lived in Chicago, he replied “Eighty years,” and Mary chimed in, laughing, with “he was born there.” (She must have noticed the confused looks on our faces; I, for one, would have put him in his sixties.) We learned that Roosevelt had been in the Marines back in the Korean War. After getting out of the military, he settled back into Chicago as an architect. Eventually he gave that up and became a music teacher, opening a shop selling instruments and providing lessons. He no longer has the shop, but still introduces kids to the joy of playing a musical instrument.

As for Mary, she had been a neonatal nurse. And then she happened to mention that she also made cookies. But not like you and I would make cookies; it seems that everyone who tried her cookies loved them so much that they kept asking for more, and she kept obliging them. She originally gave them away, but as “friends of friends” started asking for tins of them she had to start charging. Suddenly, she had a full-fledged business on her hands! Now, she wasn’t Mrs. Fields or anything, but we found the idea of this woman daily cranking out tins of cookies–24 cookies to a tin!–just fascinating. As we did the octogenarian marine/architect/music teacher. People like this are a real treasure, and we never would have met them–or any of the other people we broke bread with on the train–traveling by air, or by car, or, most likely, even by bus. And we got to spend upwards of an hour having the most delightful conversation with these folks.

There is no question that it takes longer to travel by train than many other modes of transportation. But you may find–as we do–that it is time very well spent. This is why I ride trains. So I can have dinner. With total strangers. Who, by the end of the meal, have become friends.

4 thoughts on “So, why do we ride trains?

  1. Dave Wilson

    Thanks for taking us along for the ride! Really enjoy sharing in your adventure a day at a time. See you soon in Colorado (which will be the highight of the entire trip, no doubt).

  2. Tom Wilson

    I think Del Mar certainly put Trains into our DNA, but you forgot to mention the trip that spoiled it for all of us: Mom & Dad’s 50th anniversary on the Canadian Pacific Railroad! Now that was a train ride!

  3. john

    Your post about train travel brought back a flood of memories for me. In that my father worked for the Southern Pacific RR all his children had passes for most any train except the named trains: Del Monte-Daylight types.
    We as a family would visit relatives in Utah and Wyoming by train probably every other year.
    My brother and I would take what was called the “milk train” from Redwood city to San Luis Obispo where our RR electrician brother lived. The train was so named because of the frequent stops it made. Trains used to pick up milk and deliver it to the processing plants back in the day.
    The train trips I enjoyed most where the ones to San Francisco (The City). My older brother and I would go there on business or pleasure . I am going back now to about 1950 or so. We would take the train to the “City” usually on Sunday for pleasure trips because an all day pass to ride “anything that moved” was 50 cents. Anything that moved: buses-cable cars-trolly cars. So we would just ride around town taking in the sites. The business trips were for FIRECRACKERS! and lots of them. We would walk to china town on weekdays from the depot at 3rd and T as we used to call it. We would resell the firecrackers back in Redwood City and triple our money.
    I will end with this: what would happen in this day and age if a couple little boys (8 and 10) got on a commute train with a couple cloth shopping bags full of firecrackers? Back then the conductor said something like “I see you boys are going to make a little money huh.” What today??
    John in Georgetown

  4. gwilson42 Post author

    My mother grew up in the Bay Area. For a time she lived in Palo Alto, and her father worked in the City. He commuted by train, as did she–she helped out after school doing secretarial work for her dad. When I moved to Redwood City I quickly discovered Caltrain (I typically worked for companies in Sunnyvale and North San Jose) and was tickled to think that I was traversing some of the same tracks that my mother and grandfather did. These days I work from home and miss my Caltrain commute. I still ride it from time-to-time when it makes sense (I use it to get to San Francisco on occasion, and also use it sometimes to get to the San Jose airport and to and from the San Jose Amtrak station). I love that I can walk from my house to Caltrain, ride to San Jose’s Diridon Station, and then take Amtrak to LA or to Portland. But then again, I’m a bit odd that way… 😎


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